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Like Politics, Catalytic Philanthropy is Local

We talk a big game in Do More Than Give, urging donors to solve pressing problems and drive for wide-scale, systemic change. But when it comes to demonstrating results on the ground, most of the best examples in our book are local. Do the principals of catalytic philanthropy still apply at national, continental, and global scales?

This challenging question was raised by Victor De Luca, President of The Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, during a recent National Center for Family Philanthropy (NCFP) book webinar. The Noyes Foundation is wholly committed to catalyzing change, supporting movements around environmental justice and reproductive rights, among other issues. And De Luca knows politics—he doubles as Mayor of Maplewood, New Jersey.

De Luca was pretty much right. The donors we studied in writing Do More Than Give were predominately catalyzing change at the local level: The Jacobs Family Foundation’s economic revitalization of a vulnerable multi-cultural San Diego neighborhood; The Tow Foundation’s advocacy to reform the Connecticut juvenile justice system; even the The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation example in the book was counter-intuitively local—although Gates is most renowned for tackling global health challenges, we found rich evidence studying the Sound Families anti-homelessness initiative right in Gates’ own backyard in Washington state.

But there are exceptions: AVINA Foundation has committed to pan-continental change across Latin America. Case in point: Saving the Amazon. The world’s largest rainforest is bordered by nine Latin American states, and AVINA’s catalytic approach has been to develop a network and support local leaders in a cross-state Alliance (ARA) and fostering a collective action campaign to fight deforestation. But even in this example, the first significant results have manifested locally. In Brazil, nonprofit activists used a map developed by Alliance members with GIS technology that revealed the protected vs. vulnerable patches of rainforest. Then, they used the digital evidence to persuade senators and others of the need to change how the state regulated and punished the worst offenders while creating new economic incentives to encourage more sustainable behaviors. (Read the full story in Do More Than Give under “Practice #3: Forge Nonprofit Peer Networks.”)

The challenge with saving the rainforest—as with trying to solve any complex globally-interdependent problem—is scaling local results nationally or internationally. It goes back to the driving question behind my first book, Forces for Good, in which my coauthor and I studied high-impact nonprofits that had achieved national or global scale of impact in matter of decades. Each had done so successfully (otherwise they wouldn’t have made it into the book). Groups like City Year, YouthBuild, and Teach for America helped develop and pass new National Service legislation enabled hundreds of thousands of Americans to serve in domestic Peace Corps-type programs; Environmental Defense contributed to eliminating acid rain in North America by advocating for a cap-and-trade law that effectively reduced sulfur dioxide and other emissions such that that acid rain levels have dropped 65% since 1976. But these are nonprofit examples.

What is your experience? Please post here examples of foundations or individual donors who have significantly and directly contributed to achieving national, continental or global change. And if you’re a donor who’s done it, tell us—what’s your best advice to other funders who want to effect change on a very broad scale?

Leslie Crutchfield

Former Senior Advisor